A few weeks ago I participated in a local library’s Author Fest. I had a fun day mingling with local authors and publishers and I’m always happy for the opportunity to talk about racism and to share about my YA novel, The R Word. I did notice that there were no people of color among the presenters and very few among the library patrons that browsed through the tables, chatting with the participants. No big surprise here, since it's a small library in a largely white neighborhood.
Another thing that didn’t surprise me were the comments and questions from other whites at the event. Within minutes of arriving I had a conversation with another presenter that went something like this:
Other Presenter: What is your book about?
Me: It’s about race relations among teens.
OP: Well, that’s certainly relevant. It’s all over the news.
Me: I know.
OP: If you ask me, we talk too much about it. The media blows everything up.
Me: I disagree. I think we need to talk about race more, not less. Obviously there’s a lot of racial tension around and it’s not going to go away if we don’t address it.
OP: Yes, but it has to be addressed respectfully.
Me: Of course, like everything else.
OP then made a quick exit and that was that. I know that lots of white people agree with this person’s perspective, maybe for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are uncomfortable about the media coverage of excessive police force against African American males. They feel the coverage is unfair and they want to see more stories about all the good things police officers do to help people every day. At the bottom of these feelings may be the shame and guilt that I talked about in my last post – the same feelings that drove Ben Affleck to cover up his slave-owning ancestor. Or, maybe they’re just angry. They believe that America is a meritocracy and that people should stop complaining and work harder if they want to improve their circumstances. It’s easy for them to deny the power and persistence of racism because as whites they have been on the receiving end. They’ve spent a lifetime benefiting from their whiteness in small and large, albeit invisible (to them) ways.
The way the person backtracked was interesting, too. When I challenged the position that “we talk about race too much” OP’s argument switched to “we need to be respectful when we talk about race.” In retrospect, I wish I’d asked how and why OP felt conversations about race became disrespectful, but I didn’t. Oh well, chalk it up as another things I wish I’d said moment.
During my presentation (which I’ll post next time) someone asked a question that I’ve also heard many times before: “What made you get interested in this topic?” I have to admit that this question used to leave me blank. I really had no idea when or why I became “interested" in racism (although angered and disgusted by are better descriptors). Then I realized the implication of this question. Why would a middle class white person like me care about racism? After all, race doesn’t really affect white people, right? As one race scholar noted, many whites think of race as something other people have. It’s understandable if people of color care about racism, because it’s in their interest to do so. But when a white person cares – wow, that’s really something!
So now I answer that question with some of my own. Why is it unusual for me to care? Why don’t more of us care? How can we choose to believe that racism is over when we’re confronted with evidence to the contrary every day in so many ways?